Education | Seminar on Social Theory and Philosophy of Inquiry
Y650 | 0983 | Dr. Phil Carspecken

Y650 – H657
Seminar on Social Theory and Philosophy of Inquiry
Dr. Carspecken

“Indeed, one can legitimately read it [The Theory of Communicative
Action] as a grand synopsis of the entire sociological tradition
extending from Marx to contemporary ethnomethodology and
cybernetics.  NO major school of thought is ignored, and commentaries
on such towering figures as Weber and Parsons comprise virtually self-
contained, book-length studies in their own right.  These magnificent
forays into the history of social theory are interspersed with
digressions in which Habermas develops his own theory in response to
the possibilities and limitations of the tradition as a whole.”

David Ingram 1987, Habermas and the Dialectic of Reason, p. xii

This course will use a seminar and short-lecture format to
concentrate on core texts in modern social theory.  The texts chosen
for the Summer of 2003 are The Theory of Communicative Action Volumes
One and Two, by Jurgen Habermas.  This is Habermas’s masterwork, his
main comprehensive presentation of his own version of critical
theory.  Since writing it Habermas has published many other books and
articles, a number of which alter and refine some of the ideas
originally presented in TCA.  But the theory as a whole remains
intact for Habermas and reading these two volumes is the best way to
gain a good understanding of his thought.  These two volumes do not
contain explicit commentary on methodology but have direct
implications for all social research, both in methodological and
substantive ways.  Methodologically, TCA provides a core theory of
reason and validity, action and meaning, and a bifurcated concept of
the social (lifeworld and system) having implications for research
design.  Substantively, the theory of communicative action is
suggestive for formulating research questions and determining the
vocabulary through which to articulate findings.  It also provides a
framework for ascertaining the significance of research findings.
These statements are true for all types of social research,
quantitative as well as qualitative, having a micro as well as a
macro or combined focus.

Yet another gain to be had by reading Habermas is that of acquiring a
broad social-theoretical framework through which to better spot
similarities and differences between the several competing discourses
we find today within our various schools of education and the social
sciences more generally.  A good understanding of Habermas’s theory
makes it possible to compare discourses originating with Foucault, in
the “scientific” mainstream, attracted to complexity and chaos
theory, drawn to cognitive science, originating in feminist theories,
and so on.  Such discourses tend to each have their own ways of
writing and thinking, their own favored terms, their own holistic
worldviews and identity-repertoires such that they are almost
incommensurable with each other.  One can learn how to play the games
of two such discourses without being very clear on the precise
differences between them.  A social theory having the sort of breadth
and precision we find in Habermas is enormously helpful in this

Students need not have a background in philosophy to take this course
but they should enjoy abstract thinking and the challenge of reading
difficult works.  Students should be prepared to read the assigned
passages from Habermas several times and to read my notes on the text
as well.  There is no point in taking this course if you are not
prepared to work hard and to be punctual about it, keeping up with
the intense reading schedule that a summer course requires.  Students
are advised to take this course only if they have a pressing desire
to read Habermas.  No one should take this course with only the
objective of meeting a degree requirement.  If that is your
motivation for enrolling in the class you are advised to think again
now, on the first day, before it is too late to drop.  It will
require a considerable percentage of your time, every day, to do
justice to this course.  On weekends you will have to both write and
read.  Students must have considerable motivation for taking this
course, and must have confidence in their ability to grasp much of
the reading on their own because there will only be time in class to
cover major themes and issues.

Course Assignments and evaluation:

Four short papers will be required, due on May 19th, 26th, and June
2nd and 9th. These papers should be two to six pages in length,
double-spaced.  They must be sent to me electronically—I will not
accept hard copy.  I will do my best to provide commentary on each
paper sufficient to support further investigations of related issues
in subsequent papers.  Sometimes I may ask you to write more for me,
to answer questions I raise based on your paper.  Students are
encouraged to find particular issues of interest to them
individually, based of course on the readings, explore the issues in
one paper, receive my comments, and then develop their exploration of
the same or related issues in the next paper.  In this way true
understanding of at least one issue or an issue-cluster may be
developed over the term.

A final examination question will be emailed to each student by June
13th in the afternoon.    Questions will be individualized, based on
the short papers already handed in.  In most cases several possible
questions will be given to students so that a choice may be made from
amongst them.  Students must work on the final examination questions
over the weekend of June 14th and 15th and send me their responses by
June 16th.  I will specify page length for the final examination
prior to sending out the questions.

In terms of grades, if you work hard and do so in relation to the
comments you receive on your short papers you will get an “A” in this
class.  I am not keen on grades.  A sincere person who shows progress
in developing an understanding of Habermasian theory and who works
hard is all I am looking for.  Grades will be lower if there is a
problem with participation, evidence of not covering the readings
carefully, or evidence of very little understanding of the core


Following is an idealized reading schedule.  I will make alterations
in this schedule according to my perceptions of your progress.

Written work

May 14		

May 16	
Habermas, Ch. 1: 1-42	

Weekend: write first short paper and read!

May 19	
Short paper 1 due

May 21	

May 23	
Ch. 5: 1-42	

Weekend: write second short paper and read!

May 26	
Short paper 2 due

May 28	

May 30	
Ch. 6: 113-152	

Weekend: write third short paper and read!

June 2	
Short paper 3 due

June 4	
Ch. 8: 301-356	

June 6	

Weekend: write fourth short paper and read!

June 9	
Readings to be determined	
Short paper 4 due

June 11	
Readings to be determined	

June 13	
Readings to be determined	

Weekend: write final examination

June 16		
Final examination due